As we were unable to obtain a permit to camp in the Enchantments to decided to do the Enchantments traverse from Stuart Lake Trailhead to Snow Lake Trailhead as a day hike.
We parked our car at the Snow Lake Trailhead shortly before 6am on a Thursday morning. We had called Leavenworth Taxi and Shuttle to book a shuttle to the Stuart Lake trailhead (cost $50). The shuttle was supposed to be there by 6am but did not show up. After we called the company twice and left voice messages, but never got a call back. Luckily, we were able to hitch a ride with another group who were also doing the day hike and who had their own two cars for a shuttle.
At the Stuart Lake Trailhead there were a couple of other groups doing the traverse as a day hike, and during the day we met some more. I estimate that maybe 10 groups or so did the traverse as a day hike that particular day.
Which brings me to the point that this is a hike you do for the views, not for solitude. There are plenty of people on the trail, groups with permits and day hikers. Pretty much all day long we had groups of hikers close behind us and close in front of us. This was actually one of the reasons we chose to do the traverse as a day hike — we like to camp in solitude. (We did hear from some campers that they were able to find isolated camping spots in the core.)
The first 2.6 miles on the Stuart Lake Trail to the split follow a very easy path through the forrest. The next 1.6 miles on the Colchuck Lake Trail go up a bit more, but it is still very easy. We were at Colchuck Lake in well under two hours.
Colchuck Lake is a nice clear blue lake surrounded by trees. At the South side of the lake, the trail changes dramatically, or more accurately it disappears into a field of large boulders at the foot of Colchuck Glacier above. You have to make your way hopping across these boulders to make your way across the South edge of the lake towards the bottom of the Asgard pass. There is no trail per-se, but the route is marked with cairns.
As you reach the West side of Colchuck Lake, you can see the Asgard pass in front of you. It is a steepish slope filled with smaller boulders and scree. Once again, there is not clear trail but the route is marked with cairns.
When you look at the pass above, your first thought might be “that doesn’t look so bad as I thought it would”. Don’t be too optimistic, you’re looking at a false peak which is only about half way to the actual summit, and the most difficult part is out of sight. You have a total of 2230 vertical feet up over a distance of 1.6 miles from Colchuck Lake to the top of Asgard Pass.
Follow the indistinct trail and the cairns to start making you way up the scree slope. Once you reach the first ridge, i.e. the false summit, another false summit which is actually close to the real summit appears before you. Here the trail becomes even more indistinct and more difficult to follow. It is important to pay close attention to cairns and footsteps in the dirt to stay on the right path. The problem here is that there are sometimes too many cairns and trails to chose from — probably there is more than one way to get there. The loose scree on this section makes the going tough and makes it easy to slip. Although the pass is steep, it is definitely not so exposed that a slip would be life threatening, so don’t let this description scare you out of doing it.
It is evidently a common mistake to stay too far to the left. In the middle section (between the first ridge and the second) there is a creek with a waterfall at the top of it. In mid August there was snow field near this waterfall. You have to swing right and cross over to the other side just below this snow field. At that point the trail becomes more difficult, and you have to scramble across some ledges that might be a bit challenging if you have a big pack or vertigo. You should reach the top of the pass just a few hundred yards left of the big peak with snow fields (Dragontail Peak) that towers on the right side of the pass. We saw two day hikers who were very fit climbers summit this peak as a side trip.
It took us 2 hours of slow and steady walking (with only small day packs) to cross the boulder field and get to the top of the pass.
Once you reach the top of the pass, you are in the middle of the Core Enchantments area. The first of several lakes, Isolation Lake, is right in front of you.
The actual Core Enchantments area is surprisingly small. It’s only 3 miles or so from the first lake (Isolation Lake) to the last lake (Viviane Lake). This is the easiest part of the entire hike, it is almost entirely flat. Take your time and resist the urge to stomp through it, the best part will be over before you know it. We took it very slowly, had lunch, sat down in various places, to enjoy the scenery.
The Core Enchantments Zone is indeed…. enchanting. It’s a magical series of beautiful little lakes, set in a lunar landscape of granite, amongst craggy high peaks towering on all sides. Small creeks and waterfalls connect the lakes. Tens of goats wander amongst them. It’s difficult to describe it without resorting to corny cliches — let’s just say the reputation of the Enchantments is well deserved.
Once again, the most magical part of the traverse is the short three mile-ish section on the plateau between Isolation Lake and Lake Viviane. The other lakes (e.g. Colchuck Lake and Snow Lake) are nice lakes alright, but not that much different from beautiful lakes anywhere else. Take that into account as you plan your camp sites or where you spend time during your traverse hike.
After Lake Vivianne, you leave the Core Enchantments plateau and you start a steep and difficult descent to Snow Lake, 1385 feet below over a distance of 2.6 miles. I had made what is evidently a common mistake: I thought the hard part was over once I reached the top of Asgard Pass. Not so. From the Core Enchantments zone to the Snow Lake trailhead, there is 6000 feet of vertical descent. I had imagined this to be an easy sloping path down, but it turned out to be a long steep slog that can be hard on the knees and feet. Particularly in the first part of the descent from Lake Vivianne to Snow Lake, the path is difficult to follow (pay very close attention to the cairns) and sometimes steep. We ran into some inexperienced hikers that were quite far out of their comfort zone scrambling down some of the more exposed granite ledges.
Eventually, you reach the large Snow Lake. At this point you are well into the forest again.
Then there is another steepish, but no longer difficult, descent to Nada Lake. You pass a quite spectacular waterfall on your right, where the water is ejected out of the side of the mountain instead of just tumbling down.
As we left Nada Lake behind us, we had another 5.5 miles of walking through the forest left. By now, we had been going for over 10 hours. The remaining part was mostly forest walking, distinctly boring compared to what we had left behind us. So we just put our minds on blank and trucked through the remaining 2 hours back to the cars on the parking lot so that we could rest our weary legs with a bier at a German Bier Stube in Leavenworth.
Doing the entire Enchantments as a day hike was definitely more difficult than we had expected. We had done 20 mile day hikes before, but the 4000 feet up and 6000 feet down and the more difficult than expected terrain made it quite a challenge. In the end it took us 13 hours. Some can do it much faster (we’ve heard of trail runners that do it 4 hours) but were are pretty sure that there were also some other groups that day that took much longer and must have arrived at the car lot after dark (be sure to bring head lamps). Was it worth it? You bet ya!